White Woman in Blackface as a Black Man in a White Coat? Scary.
Here’s a frank, perhaps surprising, and definitely disheartening admission: nothing you read here should be new to you. It’s been said a million times before.
During Halloween weekend a white person at the University of Oregon appeared at an off-campus party in blackface. This distasteful and offensive act was distinctive only in its details — details which actually make it more troublesome. The ignorant transgressor, a professor in the university’s law school, should have known the meaning and consequences of her act. How could someone in her position be so mindless as to imagine that such racist behavior could be construed, somehow, as clever, funny, and even positive toward the group she maligned? The costume was apparently designed, perversely, to honor Dr. Damon Tweedy, an African American physician whose recent autobiography chronicled his encounters with racism during medical school (the reveler carried the book, Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor’s Reflections on Race and Medicine, as a prop).
A local newspaper account reported other blackface incidents across the country at other campuses that weekend, including one that featured a sophomore transgressor at a fraternity party at the University of Central Arkansas who later apologized, “I can honestly say I’ve never heard of black-face until today.” But the worse-than-sophomoric act committed by a professor of law at an American public university can’t be excused as the product of youthful poor judgment and standard issue cluelessness. Law professors are supposed to have a clue, and indeed we have the right to expect that everyone else, certainly everyone on a college campus, should be aware and respectful enough not to masquerade in blackface.
You all know this. And you know at least the basic outlines of the pernicious history of blackface — the act of blackening one’s face to theatrically portray African American characters in racist, stereotypical fashion, erroneously and hurtfully ascribing to black people a number of negative characteristics and behaviors.
The practice originated in the hurly-burly world of the 1830s New York Theater along the Bowery (probably earlier and probably in other places too), where actual African Americans suffered discrimination and violence and were barred from appearing on the stage (and often in the audience). And when some were later allowed to perform, they too were required to blacken their already black faces, so as to conform rigidly to the demeaning, racist stereotypes that pervaded (and in evolving ways still pervade) American society. Jim Crow, Zip Coon, Mammy, Uncle Tom, Buck, the pickaninny, and so on, from minstrel shows, to Vaudeville, to Broadway, to film and then TV: Through such offensive stereotypes, we have broadcast and cultivated racist images and evaluations of African American people, which continue even when the face paint itself was no longer applied physically. Though, of course, in some depressing instances it still is (along with other distasteful Halloween costumes that involve similar masking — red face and yellow face and brown face.)
Might the UO law professor have intended to provide a history lesson, some historical theater to instruct and edify partygoers on All Hallows’ Eve? Of course not — Halloween as it has emerged in the United States since the late-20th century as an adult, hedonistic, alcohol-centered romp is not about education. Even the most celebrated costume drama in America today — Hamilton! — doesn’t teach us much real history, though in its casting of nonwhite people in the roles of founding fathers it does challenge audiences to question some of the country’s enduring myths and stereotypes. A harmless Hamilton costume would have been a better bet than a black-faced Dr. Tweedy.
We have work to do, particularly on college and university campuses. And we need help from those in university administrations and development offices, not to mention the public, to fund and support the Humanities, to fight ignorance. The Humanities are uniquely equipped to provide information, insight, and tools for addressing our diverse, fraught history, to help us understand and critique our cultural expressions — including images, stereotypes, and plotlines that shape and define us — and to enable us to exercise good and humane judgment in our personal and public relationships.
We need more focus on literature, theater, film, history, ethics, classics . . . to inform and enrich us as citizens in a commonwealth, and to compensate for the careerist, prematurely professional, and technical training that too often predominates in undergraduate education as well as professional programs.
This is the year of Trump, when aggressive defense of ethnocentric and hateful speech toward others masquerades as a heroic challenge to “political correctness” (that is, to decent manners and respect). And this is the year of a historic baseball World Series when, lost in the shuffle of the epic Cubs victory after a century of frustration, we see the opposing team from Cleveland continue to sport a blatantly offensive logo featuring the grinning caricature of an Indian chief, as bad as any of the racist, anti-Semitic images that polite society long ago rejected. And this is another year when we’re obliged to say once again that which is obvious — that black lives matter, that words and images come with sticks and stones that clearly do hurt us.
Matthew Dennis is Professor of History and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon. His books include Cultivating a Landscape of Peace: Iroquois-European Encounters in 17th-Century America (1993); Red, White, and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar (2002); Riot and Revelry in Early America (co-editor, 2002); Encyclopedia of Holidays and Celebrations, 3 vols. (editor, 2006); and Seneca Possessed: Indians, Witchcraft, and Power in the Early American Republic (2010). His essays, both popular and scholarly, have assayed a range of subjects, as material as Plymouth Rock and as ephemeral as dreams and visions, as celebratory as American holidays and festivals and as dire as death and mortal remains. His current book project is American Relics and the Politics of Public Memory. In 2015-16, he is Visiting Fellow at the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History Material Culture, in New York City.